Three years ago, Jean Stewart began to feel old. A proud woman, she realized she needed to make a change in her life to improve her long-term health.
“I see people who are stooped over and old, in their 60s and 70s,” Stewart says. “I don’t want to be that way. I was losing function for everyday living, stooped over and lifting things improperly. I just wanted to live my life (and be) healthy.”
As a retired physical education teacher, she’s always had a passion for fitness, but became bored in physical therapy-type exercise classes. Worst of all, she was tired of being treated like an old person who was incapable of physical activity. So, at the age of 83, Stewart decided to reinvent herself.
“She came walking into the gym with our newspaper ad folded under her arm and handed it to us,” remembers Cheryl Cohen, founder, owner and head trainer of Desert CrossFit in Palm Desert, Calif. “I asked her what she wanted from CrossFit and she said, ‘Well, I would like an easier time in the garden, getting down and getting back up again. I’d like to be able to move the 20-lb. bag of potting soil.’”
Unsure of the environment she’d entered, Stewart figured she had nothing to lose. Cohen assured her she could thrive at Desert CrossFit.
“I’ve always been a stubborn person; you’ve got to prove it to me,” Stewart admits. “Cheryl did.”
Three years later, Stewart says she found what she was looking for.
“I’m in there with everyone else,” she says. “I’m very competitive, trying to excel in everything I do. CrossFit is a matter of seeing what you have inside and maximizing it.”
The biggest benefits, Stewart says, have been her increased flexibility and improved balance. She does push-ups, pull-ups, tires tosses, deadlifts, rope workouts, squats — all scaled to her ability level.
“I’ve learned to pull myself up on the rope,” Stewart says. “I can’t climb on the rope, but I’ve learned to pull myself off the floor onto the rope, which is an accomplishment.”
“I squat properly now.”
Stewart works comfortably in her garden now, too.
“We do the plank position and she can hold it for two minutes. When she does the ab wheel, she gets on her knees, rolls all the way out and does 10. It’s just amazing,” Cohen says. “She’s got a crazy strong core. And I think that’s helped a tremendous amount to relieving back pain.”
And Stewart inspires more people than just those at Desert CrossFit. When a photo of her deadlifting 151 lb. was posted on CrossFit’s Facebook page in mid-January, it received nearly 11,400 likes, close to 1,900 comments and was shared almost 5,000 times.
Today, she is deadlifting 153 lb.
But Cohen is quick to say it’s Stewart’s athleticism — not her PRs — that are impressive.
“There are so many people in the world with so many excuses,” the coach says. “She doesn’t consider what she does that big of a deal. But it is.”
Yes, She Can
Born in 1929 — the same year as the infamous Black Tuesday stock market crash that started the Great Depression — Stewart remains humble despite her local rock-star status. She maintains that more people should get involved with CrossFit. “I don’t think what I do is anything special,” Stewart says. “Everyone can do CrossFit, but CrossFit is not for everyone. It’s just hard work and you have to be committed.”
Stewart has 12 grandchildren
“and a few great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren.”
“At first, the kids didn’t understand (why I wanted to do CrossFit),” she says. “But now they see what it is and what it means to me. (CrossFit) is like another family. We encourage each other. We feel each other’s failings. We care about each other.”
While she doesn’t compete, Cohen says Stewart is “a complete team player” and goes to every local competition or event to encourage her fellow athletes.
For her part, Stewart says she’s still learning every day.
“I’ve eliminated ‘I can’t’ from my vocabulary,” she says. “I can now and I will. After all, age is just a state of mind.”